Medical pot smokers sway City Council

June 14, 2004

Jason Gewirtz , Long Beach Press-Telegram

LONG BEACH — Hearing impassioned pleas from medical marijuana patients and advocates, the City Council on Tuesday asked the Police Department to change a policy that essentially requires officers who see marijuana to arrest patients first and ask questions later.

The council asked the police to return by Sept. 14 with a proposed new policy to eliminate what several residents said was unfair and inhumane treatment of medical marijuana patients.

The city's police policy calls for officers who come across someone with marijuana to seize any evidence and arrest or cite the person as appropriate. Medical marijuana patients can then prove their cases in court.

Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996, makes it legal for patients to possess or cultivate marijuana for medical use.

'We have not been following the law,' said Councilman Dan Baker, who called for the review with Councilman Val Lerch.

Since 2000, five medical marijuana patients have been arrested in Long Beach.

Baker and Lerch called for the review after the council's Public Safety Advisory Commission asked the council to get involved. The advisory board heard months of testimony from residents who said the police policy was at odds with the state law.

Council members heard emotional testimony from residents, including several who have been arrested for possession or cultivation.

David Zink, the first Long Beach medical marijuana patient to be arrested after Prop 215 took effect, said he was not satisfied with the time frame for the new review. Zink's case for possession and cultivation was eventually dismissed. But, he said, he spent about $15,000 in legal fees, he said.

'I feel like this is another delay,' he said. 'They've had eight years to come up with a reasonable policy.'

Michael Barbee, who helped the San Diego City Council recently change that city's similar police policy, said Long Beach needed to follow suit. After studying the issue, San Diego settled on a policy to require identification cards for residents taking marijuana for medical purposes.

'We have police officers making medical decisions,' Barbee said of Long Beach's policy.

But police officials said that changing the policy isn't as easy as it might appear.

Deputy Chief Robert Luna said the department would need to consult with the Los Angeles district attorney's office as well as the Long Beach city attorney and prosecutor to account for any liability a policy change could bring.

In addition, he said, marijuana use has been the cause of property crimes, violent crime and gang activity, making it difficult for officers to differentiate between who has the right to use marijuana legally. Although there have been five arrests for medical marijuana since 2000, he said, there have been about 5,000 other marijuana-related arrests over the same period.

'The police officer on the street is dealing with a lot of serious issues,' he said.

The request for a new policy passed on an 8-0 vote with Lerch abstaining.

Lerch, whose wife suffers from multiple sclerosis, said he was too emotionally attached to the issue to vote with an open mind.

'My wife will probably not use marijuana,' he said. 'But damn it, she should have the right to do so.'

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